Word formation/Printable version

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Word formation

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Compounding is the process which probably characterises English the most. Compounds are formed by combining two, or more, already existing words into a new one. The graphical form of its constituents remains unaltered (which is not always the case for their phonological form — changes often occur on the level of suprafixes, that is regarding tone or stress): chairlift, ashtray, fast-food, dry-clean, sex symbol, sewage disposal works. English compounds very in their orthography and can be constructed out of more than two constituents. They can be either spelled together, separately or be hyphenised — the rules regarding a preferred form are not clearly internalised, although there are some tendencies in frequency of particular forms [1].

Structure[edit | edit source]

What is common for compounds, however, is their structure. Each consists of a head and a modifier. The head of a compound is the part that is more important than the other in a way it determines the word-class of the whole word and takes inflectional endings. It also follows the general rule of importance of meaning — that is, the more meaningful or important a constituent is, the more likely it will be placed at the end of a given structure. Hence, we can conclude that in English compounds are generally rightheaded — in the example of fast-food, the whole word denotes 'a kind of food' rather than any attempt to describe a way of 'being fast'. Also, since the morpheme food is a noun, the whole word belongs to the very same word-class. What remains is the lefthand of a compound, namely the modifier. Modifiers are characterised by being applied stress onto, which helps us distinguish them from other constructs — a 'blackboard is 'a board that teachers write on', while a black 'board is any board that happens to be black — which is not necessarily true for the former.

Productivity[edit | edit source]

The vast majority of English compounds are nouns [2]. However, the productivity of this process allows to create items that vary greatly in word classes they belong to — there exists a considerable number of combinations of grammatical categories one can choose from when merging them into compounds, and this is the basis for establishing the primary classification of compounds. There is a category of compounds, though, that contain constituents of a slightly different character. What is meant here is that they not only can be attached to bases like bound morphemes (affix-like behaviour), but can also be combined with themselves. These abound in the medical and scientific terminology and often stem from Greek or Latin, and some examples include astro-, electro-, hydro-, -ology, -photo, bio-. What is more, they often function on their own in the linguistic word, which effectively narrows the meaning of a newly-coined word that is created by combing these segments. Such constituents are labelled 'combining forms' and form a structure called neo-classical compounds.

References[edit | edit source]


Affixation is a process which involves adding bound morphemes to roots which results in a newly-created derivative. Whereas we can distinguish many types of this process, the English language generally makes use of two — prefixation and suffixation. The first is characterised by adding a morpheme that is placed before the base: mature — premature, do — undo, affirm — reaffirm, function — malfunction. In contrast, suffixation focuses on attaching a morpheme that rather follows the base than proceeds it: read — reader, friend — friendship, manage — management. What is also characteristic for this type of affixation is the fact that suffixes can be stacked on one another — this does not happen when it comes to prefixes: re-spect-ful-ness, friend-liness, un-help-ful-ness. It should be noted that affixes are divided into two main categories: while some of them are labelled as inflectional, a majority of them is known to be derivational.

Derivational affixes[edit | edit source]

Derivational affixes can change the word-class of the derivative and can be either prefixes or suffixes — therefore they can produce new lexemes. However, the meaning they carry is not always fixed — eg. X-ise carries the meaning of either "put into X (computerise — 'put into a computer'), make more X (modernise — 'make more modern' or provide with X (brotherise — 'provide with a brother').

Inflectional affixes[edit | edit source]

Another type of affixes is labelled as inflectional. They differ from the other type in the way that once attached, they will never change the word-class of a derivative. Also, their grammatical function is very much fixed: the plural -s suffix always creates plural forms of nouns: dog — dogs, cat — cats. In fact, they do not produce new words in English, but rather provide the existing lexemes with new forms:

  1. the plural [-s] - creates plural forms of nouns: dog — dogs, cat — cats, bush — bushes,
  2. Saxon genitive ['s] - indicates possession: Robert — Robert's (clothes), children — children's (toys), Jesus — Jesus' (mercy),
  3. the past tense [-ed] - creates past forms of regular verbs: walk - walked, delve -delved,
  4. the third person singular [-s] - enforced by the English grammar in the Present Simple tense: She works there, The knife proves sharp,
  5. the progressive [-ing] - used in progressive forms of verbs: go — going, see — seeing, ski — skiing,
  6. the comparative [-er] - forms comparative adjectives: wide — wider, high — higher, far — farther,
  7. the superlative [est] - forms superlative adjectives: wise — widest, high — highest, far — furthest.

Another type of affixation that can be encountered in either English or Polish (though to a rather limited scope) is infixation, which involves putting a morpheme in the middle of a word structure rather than taking lateral positions: al-bloody-mighty, kanga-bloody-roo. In the English language this only serves as a tool of emotionally colouring swear-words to give them greater an impact.

Yet another type of suffix are interfixes. They are used in Polish compounds and blends to ensure phonological feasibility of a word: śrub-o-kręt, park-o-metr, lod-o-łamacz and are meaningless phonemes that connect two bases. They do exist in English but due to the fact that English compound-formation does not require such measures their number is scarce (eg. speedo-meter).

Internal modification

Internal modification occurs when a phoneme (or a group of phonemes) in a word is replaced by another one and thus creates a new item. Although the process itself is not very productive in English [3], a variety of changes can be introduced with it, like word-class change or tense change. There are several possibilities of swapping the phonological segments — these include replacing vowels, consonants or both the same time (mixed modifications). Replacing all the sound segments result in a phenomenon called suppletion, eg. człowiek (sg.) — ludzie (pl.). In English it is common to observe internal modification in the past verb forms (wind — wound, steal — stole, make — made) and in irregular plural forms of nouns (mouse — mice, woman — women, foot — feet). In contrast, the Polish language makes use of internal modification in creating augmentatives: nos — nochal, kluska — klucha.

References[edit | edit source]


Reduplication is a process that takes place when the root or stem is reduplicated and added to the existing one. The added morpheme might or might not be further modified and on the basis of this division one can distinguish partial and complete variants or reduplication. The latter of the two does not change the structure of the reiterated word.

Examples found in the Indonesian language[4]:

  • kitab — 'book',
  • kitab kitab - 'various books',
  • anak — 'child',
  • anak anak — 'various children'.

While these clearly show that the additional morpheme not only denotes 'various X' but also suggests plural, conversely English girly-girly and goody-goody represent derivatives whose meaning implies using irony or sarcasm.

Partial reduplication, in turn, takes advantage of morphemes that have been modified to a degree. This is where pseudomorphemes are introduced — such that have been modified in a way they remain as sound clusters that no longer carry meaning and serve as a tool of expressing stylisation or emotional involvement of the speaker: shillyshally, zig-zag. The presence of pseudomorphemes is an indicative of the word being an outcome of reduplication rather than compound-creation where meaningful morphemes are used.

References[edit | edit source]


In contrast to reduplication which because of its nature is rather doubtful in being clearly labelled as a tool of non-concatenative morphology branch, conversion is an easily-defined word-formation process.

Conversion takes place when a given word changes its word-class, hence becoming a new one. Because this involves no extension at the level of the word's internal structure, this process is also called zero-derivation or zero-affixation. It is argued that even though there is no visual representation of meaning-derivation, the so-called zero morpheme is added to the base as a justification for the change: [cook]v → [[cook]V + O ]N.

What can be exposed to modification, however, is the way the word is stressed (compare 'import [n.] and im'port [v.]). Despite this being the only noticeable change, there are several ways to find out which one is the derivative of the other. These include the date of the word's first appearance, frequency of the word's occurrence in use and complexity of meaning. Because the word that appeared first tends to carry less content meaning-wise, the one whose meaning is extended is regarded to be a derivative. Although conversion seems to be a relatively free process and can produce derivatives of virtually any word-class [5], four certain types of this phenomenon seem to prevail in English [6]: noun-to-verb (a pilot [n.] — to pilot [v.]), verb-to-noun (to cook [v.] — a cook [n.]), adjective-to-noun (professional [a.] — a professional [n.]) and adjective-to-verb (empty [v.] — to empty [v.]). Also, one can distinguish between partial conversion and total conversion. Whereas total conversion deals with the transformation of the word into a new one following all its principles of grammatical suitability, partial conversion derivatives can differ from the original in a way (eg. adviceto advise, houseto house: /s/ is exchanged for /z/).

References[edit | edit source]


Back-formation, also known as back-derivation, forms new lexemes by means of suffix-like segment extraction. This means that not only suffixes can be deleted from the stem, but also structures that behave alike, as long as the cut is done at a boundary between corresponding morphemes. Taking these two possibilities into account, one may be presented not only with such examples as lecher — to lech, peddler — to peddle, sculptor — to sculpt, but also the lexeme to lase being a derivative of laser where the {-er} segment is a by-product of deconstructing an acronym rather than the agentive/instrumental suffix -er [7]. This type of word formation in English is by far dominated by creating derivatives that belong to the grammatical class of verb [8]. Back-derivation is often an outcome of linguistic productivity based on paradigms — it is safe to make an assumption that pairs edit — editor and exhibit — exhibitor were created in a similar manner by employing strategies speakers of the language know because of their linguistic competence.

References[edit | edit source]


Blending, or contamination, is the name of the process which occurs when at least two lexemes are shortened and joined together disregarding their initial boundaries. What is created in such a process can be called a blend, though other names are also found to operate — those being portmanteau or telescoped words.

A characteristic feature of contamination, and also the one that enables a speaker to coin blends freely is that the semantic content of the derivative most of the time carries some of the meaning of its constituents. There are few rules that govern blend-creation. The speaker is not restricted in any way from using part of any length of either of the constituents (the obvious cases would be the ability to pronounce such a word), thus distinguishing elements that add up to the derivative is not always an easy task. This leads to a conclusion that blends found in English are constructed according to various patterns.

Among others, one can find words that are constructed of two constituents, but only one of them is shortened, or even the two overlap each other:

Lexeme 1 Lexeme 2 Blend
breath analyser brethalyser
cable telegram cablegram
slang language slanguage


The products of acronymisation are called acronyms. These word-structures are made of several other words' initial segments that make up a whole and serve as a meaningful shortening of a longer phrase. This definition is also true for abbreviations.

The key to distinguish the two is the manner of pronunciation of either derivatives. Whereas acronyms are pronounced as a complete word, the other type rather as a series of separate letters. This being said, one will pronounce the acronym UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation) as [ju ˈnesk əʊ], and UFO which is an abbreviation as [ˌjuː ef ˈəʊ].


Clipping occurs whenever a word is shortened but nevertheless still retains its original meaning and belongs to the same word-class.

Productivity[edit | edit source]

Clipping-productivity is governed by the condition of derivatives being phonologically well-formed, with morpheme-boundary cuts no longer being a requirement (this helps distinguish certain clipping products from back-formation where such mechanism exists). This being said, with the use of la langue one is more likely to derive cello from violoncello rather than *ncell since it does not represent a pronunciation that is common or even correct in the English language. Another principle that that applies[9] is a product of clipping must be either one- or two-syllable long; also — first or primarily-stressed syllables are retained.

This indeed is the case: refrigerator — fridge, advertisement — ad, penitentiary — pen.

In some cases, the syllable structure may be altered (e-xa-mi-na-tion - e-xam). Because of the language's tendency to adopt ways of expressing oneself in the most effective manner — that is convey as much meaning as possible in as little as possible — products of clipping tend to gain ground in slang words and become a tool used in relaxed, informal, every-day communication, which further solidifies their position in the language. They also indicate speaker's familiarity towards the concept that is presented through the word.

What also has been noted to happen is once a product of clipping is derived, it may rival with the lexeme it was derived from and because of so undergo semantic changes. This is contradictive to the rule of meaning-retention, and once again proves that word-formation often produces lexemes that are uneasy to define. The examples include fanatic — fan, brandywine — brandy, caravan — van [10]. These show that discrepancies between the derivatives can exist, which can be further proved by the example of fanatic — fan — fanboy where both fanatic and the compound fanboy are semantically distant from each other.

Clipping types[edit | edit source]

There are four types of possible clipping processes, depending on which part of the word undergoes structural changes: back-clipping (temperature — temp, rhino — rhinoceros, gym — gymnasium), fore-clipping (helicopter — copter, telephone — phone, plane — aeroplane), mixed clipping (influenza — flu, refrigerator — fridge) and clipping-compounds (paratrooper — parachute + trooper).

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Szymanek, Bogdan (1998). Introduction to Morphological Analysis. p. 41.
  2. Bauer, Laurie (1983). English Word-Formation. p. 202.
  3. Szymanek, Bogdan (1998). Introduction to Morphological Analysis. p. 76.
  4. Szymanek, Bogdan (1998). Introduction to Morphological Analysis. p. 72.
  5. Bauer, Laurie (1983). English Word-Formation. p. 226.
  6. Plag, I (2007). Introduction to English Linguistics. p. 100.
  7. Szymanek, Bogdan (1998). Introduction to Morphological Analysis. p. 93.
  8. Stekauer, Pavol (2000). Rudiments of English Linguistics. p. 109.
  9. Szymanek, Bogdan (1998). Introduction to Morphological Analysis. p. 97.
  10. Štekauer, P (2000). Rudiments of English Linguistics. p. 111.